Last week I spoke in a debate organised by Politics in Brum about whether or not Birmingham should have an elected mayor. I am sure there will be many more such debates over the next six months as we move towards a referendum in May 2012 to ask the people of Birmingham whether or not they want an elected mayor. These next six months provide an important opportunity to address some fundamental questions about the city, how it is governed, and its identity.
Birmingham is a city of over a million people, with a council budget well in excess of £1bn. It’s far too big to expect to effectively micro manage the detail of what happens in local communities. But strategic decisions made at city level in Birmingham should be able to make a strategic difference, not only to the lives of Brummies but to the West Midlands as a whole.
All too often the reverse is true.
I know from years of experience in my own Northfield constituency that City Council bureaucracy and silo mentalities can too easily be blind to the wood because they are too busy dealing with their own trees. Services are often unresponsive to local needs. And if a local initiative occasionally does show a spark of creativity, all too often it is snuffed out by City Council procedures determined to reshape new square pegs to fit their existing round holes. I might be mixing my metaphors a bit too much here but you get the picture. And that picture is one that looks like getting worse, not better, with the massive cuts now being forced through.
The irony is that whilst the City Council’s centralising influence is too often suffocating within Birmingham, it rarely means a consistent message or identity is projected beyond. Given our size we don’t punch our weight nationally anywhere near as effectively as, say, Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds, but we still manage to get our Birmingham-centeredness resented in the West Midlands. The obsession with crass self congratulation at the expense of strategic action on the part of the current City Council leadership is a particularly bad example of all this – but the problem goes deeper than the personality of Mike Whitby.
It’s almost as if Birmingham is a little parish council that took too many steroids rather than the confident regional capital that it should be.
To turn this around I think an elected mayor stands a better chance of giving the strategic leadership Birmingham needs than the current system.
But electing a mayor should not be about simply concentrating power to decide everything in one individual. That would hardly be a model of democracy and I don’t even think it would work. One of Birmingham City Council’s problems has been too much centralisation, not too little.
A mayor will only be able to provide the kind of strategic leadership Birmingham needs at city and regional level if the Council is also prepared to ‘let go’. To devolve power to lower levels of governance within the city far more extensively than it has ever been prepared to do before. And to understand that partnerships with other organisations in the statutory, voluntary and even private sectors should mean more than just consulting them on how they should go along with the City Council’s own way of doing things.
Sometimes people talk about a Mayor of Birmingham as if it would be the same kind of animal as the Mayor of London. It won’t be.
Below the pan London level at which either Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone operate, there are London boroughs – each with its own elected council, each with responsibility for delivering a range of services on the ground. Unlike in London, an incoming Birmingham Mayor’s in-tray will include sorting out cleaning the streets as well as the huge challenges facing children’s services, housing and social care as well as the economic future of England’s second city.
I’m not saying we can or should try to replicate London’s boroughs in Birmingham – but we should try to locate decision making and the management of many services much closer to the ground than we do now. A mayoral system and a strategically focussed council at city level could provide a coherent framework within which a more devolved system could work, but it should not try to substitute itself for it.
City Councillors (and MPs) could be a bridge between local communities and governance structures at city level and beyond. City Councillors should also play a pivotal role in the operation of devolved structures within the city. They too, though, should see their role as fostering partnerships that work and empower local communities, not becoming local barons in different corners of the city.
A mayoral system could be just what Birmingham needs, but only if we also grasp the nettle of devolution that we have talked about for a long time, but rarely carried through.
Richard Burden is the Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield.